Social Justice

Social justice means being entitled to the same rights and services as all other citizens.

Breastplate - Cora Gooseberry B008454

Breastplate - Cora Gooseberry B008454
Photographer: Stuart Humphreys © Australian Museum

These rights have been difficult to achieve for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders because of a history of governmental and colonial racism.

What is social justice?

"Social justice is what faces you in the morning. It is awakening in a house with adequate water supply, cooking facilities and sanitation. It is the ability to nourish your children and send them to school where their education not only equips them for employment but reinforces their knowledge and understanding of their cultural inheritance. It is the prospect of genuine employment and good health: a life of choices and opportunity, free from discrimination."

Mick Dodson, Annual Report of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, 1993.

"Non-Aboriginal Australia has developed on the racist assumption of an ingrained sense of superiority that it knows best what is good for Aboriginal people."

Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, National Report

Redfern Park Speech

"[I]t might help if we non-Aboriginal Australians imagined ourselves dispossessed of the land we lived on for 50 000 years, and then imagined ourselves told that it had never been ours. Imagine if ours was the oldest culture in the world and we were told that it was worthless. Imagine if we had resisted this settlement, suffered and died in the defence of our land, and then were told in history books that we had given it up without a fight. Imagine if non-Aboriginal Australians had served their country in peace and war and were then ignored in history books. Imagine if our feats on the sporting field has inspired admiration and patriotism and yet did nothing to diminish prejudice. Imagine if our spiritual life was denied and ridiculed. Imagine if we had suffered the injustice and then were blamed for it."

Extract from the speech by Mr Paul Keating, Prime Minister of Australia, Redfern Park, 10 December 1993 at the launch of Australia's celebration of the International Year of the World's Indigenous People.

Social Justice - Keeping Score

The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody found a long history of social injustice in a number of crucial areas for Indigenous Australians. The following statistics measure progress in achieving social justice for Indigenous Australians in these areas.


Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations comprise just over 1.6% of the total Australian population.

Two thirds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders live in rural or remote areas. However, more Indigenous people live in Western Sydney than anywhere else in Australia.


Indigenous Australians are ten times more likely to suffer from diabetes mellitus than non-Indigenous Australians. Indigenous Australians are seven times more likely to die of a respiratory disease.

The rate of Indigenous infant mortality is two to three times greater than for non-Indigenous Australians.

The life expectancy for Indigenous Australians is between 16-18 years less than non-Indigenous Australians.


In 1991, the unemployment rate for Indigenous Australians was nearly three times that of the national average.

Employment rate in 1991:

  • Indigenous Australian 30.8 %
  • National 11.7 %

Indigenous Australians earn less than two thirds the national average.

Average income per year in 1991:

  • Indigenous Australian $11 491
  • National $17 614

For more detailed statistics go to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission website.


Over 30 percent of Indigenous Australian family dwellings are 'over-occupied', by national standards. The national average is eight percent.

27 percent of Indigenous Australians own their own homes. The national rate for home ownership is 69 percent.

Law and Justice

At 30 June, 2016:

•There were 10,596 prisoners who identified as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, a 7% increase (711 prisoners) from 30 June, 2015 (9,885 prisoners). The number of non-Indigenous prisoners increased by 8% (2,002 prisoners).

•Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners accounted for just over a quarter (27%) of the total Australian prisoner population.

•From 30 June, 2015, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander imprisonment rate increased by 4%, from 2,253 to 2,346 prisoners per 100,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population. The non-Indigenous rate increased by 6% over the same period from 146 to 154 prisoners per 100,000 non-Indigenous population.

•The proportion of adult prisoners who identified as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ranged from 8% in Victoria (535 prisoners) to 84% (1,393 prisoners) in the Northern Territory.

(Australian Bureau of Statistics)

Dispossession and Health

"I thought that's a real indictment upon Australia, that Aboriginal people living in an advanced country, have third world health problems."

Dr Sandra Eades, Aboriginal Medical Service in My Kind of People, Achievement, Identity and Aboriginality, 1994.

Colonisation has affected the health of Indigenous communities in a number of ways. One of the most devastating impacts of European colonisation on Aboriginal people was the introduction of diseases such as smallpox, influenza, venereal disease, typhoid, tuberculosis, pneumonia, measles and whooping cough. For example, many of the Eora people who lived on the foreshores of Sydney Harbour died from smallpox in the first years of the European occupation.

Other effects of colonisation such as poverty and racism on Aboriginal health are less obvious but no less devastating.

Aboriginal incomes are generally lower than the average for other Australians.

Large proportions of Aboriginal people have inadequate housing, water quality, food supplies and sanitation. This seriously affects the health of children.

Aboriginal children are typically lighter in weight and shorter than non-Aboriginal peers.


Controlled by the State

"Nothing could have prepared my mother for the experience of reading her files. The first entry in 1942 and the last 1974 - 32 years of surveillance."

Jackie Huggins, Historian/Writer, Auntie Rita, Brisbane, 1994.

Until 1969, state-run Aboriginal Protection or Welfare Boards controlled and supervised the lives of Indigenous Australians. These boards, which began operating in the early 1900s, could decide where Indigenous people could live, whom they might marry or have relationships with and where and how their children could be raised. They also determined which jobs Indigenous people could have, and withheld their wages indefinitely. They governed what property Indigenous people could own and how they disposed of it and also where people could travel who they could visit.

Certain exemptions were made for those Indigenous people who were deemed to have reached 'acceptable' standards of non-Indigenous civilisation, that is, a European lifestyle. These people were granted a type of 'honorary' citizenship which could nevertheless be withdrawn by the authorities. Aboriginal people referred to these exemption certificated as 'dog tags' or 'dog licences'.

Finally in 1969, the Protection Board was disbanded and the Commonwealth assumed responsibility for Indigenous affairs. This meant that under the Constitution, Indigenous Australians were entitled to the same rights as all other Australian citizens.

Albert Namatjira

Albert Namatjira was an Arrente man from the Hermansburg mission in west Alice Springs, who became known nationally for his paintings of Central Australia.

Despite his fame, Namatjira was still subject to the controls of Aboriginal Protection Boards. In 1949, his application for a grazier's lease was rejected. In 1951, his application for permission to build a house of his own was denied. At the same time as these basic rights were denied him, and even though he was not considered an Australian citizen, Namatjira was required to pay tax on his earnings.

Namatjira was awarded the Queen's Coronation Medal in 1953, and in 1957, he and his wife were granted honorary citizenship of Australia, though their children remained state wards.

In 1958, he was arrested for sharing alcohol with a relation who did not have citizenship privileges. For this 'crime' he was forced to spend two months under open arrest on the Papunya Reserve. He died of a heart attack three months later.

The Freedom Rides

In February 1965, 30 people led by Charles Perkins and Jim Spigelman undertook a bus tour of northern and western New South Wales towns to protest against racial discrimination. This group became known as the 'freedom riders'.

The tour focussed national attention on racism that had been generated and supported by the 'White Australia Policy'. Indigenous people were often denied service in shops, separated from whites in cinemas, banned from hotels and clubs and excluded from swimming pools being used by white people.

The freedom riders experienced hostility in most towns and violence in some. Eventually,'White Australia' was formally ended as government policy in 1972 and the Race Discrimination Act was passed in 1975. Nevertheless, the struggle for social justice continues today.

Horton, D, Aboriginal Encyclopedia

Reproducing the Stereotypes

"White Australians basically are racist. Racism stems from what you see on TV. Not seeing an Aboriginal family in these productions is part of that. It's all right to have a black American family in there, that's fine, but not a black Australian. But you can't paint a black picture if you only use white paint."

Ernie Dingo, Actor/Comedian, in 'My Kind of People, Achievement and Identity and Aboriginality', 1994.

In 1990, the National Inquiry into Racist Violence found that Aboriginal people (and other minority groups) saw television and newspapers as a major influence in the maintenance of racism and misrepresentation of their cultures and lives.

The Inquiry supported Indigenous Australians' concerns that issues and events involving Aboriginal people were predominantly shown in a negative light - that Aboriginal people were either portrayed as a threat to society, or as victims. This type of misrepresentation continues the cycle of misunderstanding and racism. The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody confirmed these problems with media portrayals of Indigenous people and issues when it recommended that journalists be trained in cross-cultural awareness.

Since the early 1980s, Aboriginal community-based media organisations have been formed to provide an Aboriginal perspective and influence, in the representation of Indigenous peoples in the media.

The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody

Aboriginal Deaths in Custody

"Australia must know the truth behind the deaths or else we must forever live with the knowledge that our fear of the truth or our misguided sense of priorities caused us to abandon an essential and momentous decision to examine a little of our national character and the behaviour of people in authority."

Justice James Muirhead, Royal Commissioner into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

"Asking an Aboriginal what he or she regards as the important factors underlying deaths in custody often elicits as a first reply "racism"... it is an uncomfortable subject which tends not to be talked about very openly and the existence of which is vigorously denied by those who are its most obvious practitioners."

Hal Wootten, Royal Commissioner into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

Between 1980 and 1989, at least 99 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people died in prison, youth detention centres or police cells.

The relatives of a number of the dead began campaigning for a national Inquiry into the deaths. In August 1987, after the death of an Aboriginal man in the New South Wales town of Brewarrina, the sixteenth person to die in custody that year, the Prime Minister, Mr Bob Hawke, announced that a Royal Commission into deaths in custody would be held.

In 1991, the Commission presented its report and made a series of recommendations to improve the treatment of Indigenous Australians in the justice system. However, the fundamental finding of the Commission was that racism towards Indigenous Australians is ingrained at all levels of Australian society and was the major contributing factor to deaths in custody.

Five years after the Commission made its recommendations, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Report found that between 1989 and 1996, at least 96 Aboriginal people died in custody. In 1995, 22 Aboriginal people died in custody - the highest number since 1987.

"Governments claim they have implemented the recommendations but the stories of Indigenous people who died tell otherwise. Failure to implement [the Royal Commission's] recommendations within the criminal justice system is a major cause of continuing deaths."

Mick Dodson,
Human Rights and Equal Opportunity
Commission press release, 25 November 1996.

The findings of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody

The commissioners investigating the deaths in custody of the 99 Aboriginal people did not find widespread foul play by the custodians as was generally expected. However, they did find damning similarities in the lives of those who died. Almost half had been taken as children from their families by State authorities, most were unemployed, and nearly all had had repeated contact with the justice system from an early age.

In summary, the Commission found that the major cause of death in custody was that Aboriginal people were brought into contact with the justice system more than non-Indigenous Australians and for lesser offences. They also found that people were inadequately cared for and supervised while in detention.

The Royal Commission stressed the need to find alternatives to custody for Aboriginal people, for the involvement of Aboriginal communities in the justice system and for self-determination at the local level. Finally, they called for a process of national reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Alternatives to Custody

Community Service Alternatives to Custody

The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody found that a history of cultural ignorance and misunderstanding over the value and practice of Indigenous law had resulted in Indigenous Australians being severely disadvantaged in the courts and over-represented in prisons.

Too many young Indigenous people were caught in an escalating cycle of encounters with police and the criminal justice system. Consequently, the Commission recommended that the community be involved in the sentencing process and that community service order be issued as alternatives to prison sentences for some offences.

Two Systems of Law

"Colonial law has been a reality in Australia since 1788. Aboriginal law has always been a reality and we are unanimous in our resolve that it continue to be so."

Noel Pearson,
Executive Director,
Cape York Land Council, 1993.

Many Indigenous Australians live under two legal systems - the British-based Australian legal system and the Indigenous customary law system. Customary law is a term used to describe the laws and ways of living handed down to Aboriginal people by the Ancestral Beings.

In many remote of parts of Australia, Indigenous cultures are the dominant cultures. In areas such as Arnhem Land, the Western Desert (Central Australia) and Pitjanjatjara lands, a blend of British-based Australian law and Indigenous customary law is working successfully.


Towards the Future

"We have extended our hand to other Australians. Those Australians who take our hand are those who dare to dream of an Australia that could be. In true reconciliation, through the remembering, the grieving and the healing, we become as one in the dreaming of this land. This is about us and our country, not about the petty deliberations of politics. We must join hands and forge our future.

Will you take our hand? Will you dare to share our dream?"

Mick Dodson, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Sydney Morning Herald, 25 January, 1997.

Aboriginal Stockmen and Women

One of the ironies of Aboriginal history is that the steady advance of the pastoralist industry, which seized Aboriginal lands, was only made possible and profitable by the use of Aboriginal labour. Aboriginal stockmen provided valuable bush skills and labour, yet most were paid little for their work.

Elders recount both good and bad stories about their stockmen days - stories of being national rodeo champions and stories of harsh conditions and racism.

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